October 28, 2020

Press Freedom

OPC Calls for Support for Press Freedom Advocates

Though World Press Freedom Day is now behind us, the Overseas Press Club asks that people join us in supporting global advocates for press freedom, free speech, and human rights.

Those advocates continue the fight for the timeless principles of press freedom; underscore the urgent need for reporter’s access to information during the coronavirus pandemic; push back against the constant attacks on the media, and sound the call for journalist safety, including the hundreds of imprisoned journalists worldwide.

“The pandemic has given rise to a second pandemic of misinformation, from harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories” says Antonio Guterres, secretary general, United Nations. “The press provides the antidote: verified, scientific-based news and analysis.”

The OPC calls attention to five of the most urgent threats to press freedom:

U.S.-China Take Turns Retaliating Against Media. There are two major casualties while Washington and Beijing trade political punches: the public’s access to fact-based information during the global coronavirus pandemic, and sidelined journalists and support their staff in both countries. Dozens of journalists have lost out in 2020 as the political battle intensifies. The latest salvo comes from Washington and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which announced a new policy on May 8 that it would only issue visa to Chinese national reporters working in the U.S. for 90 days with visa extensions limited to 90 days. Beijing decried this action and threatened countermeasures in response to what it calls a suppression against Chinese media. In March, the Chinese government expelled 13 U.S. journalists working at news bureaus, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, after revoking their media credentials. The government also dismissed several Chinese nationals working in support roles at U.S. news bureaus in Beijing. This was in response to a move by the U.S. government earlier in March designating five Chinese media outlets as foreign missions and lowering the available number of U.S. visas for Chinese citizens working at those outlets. This forced 60 Chinese journalists to leave the U.S.

Covid-19 adds another threat to the climate of adversity facing journalists. Governments around the world are leveraging Covid-19 to restrict the free flow of information among democratic and autocratic states. The global health crisis has enabled governments “to exercise control over the media on the pretext of preventing the spread of disinformation,” said a report by the International Press Institute. The IPI is based in Vienna and has logged 162 press freedom violations since mid-February.

Covid-19 threatens the lives of imprisoned journalists around the world. A #freethepress campaign has been launched by The Committee to Protect Journalists calling for the unconditional release of the more than 250 journalists in jail, according to its latest global census. Those journalists have no control over their environment and are often denied medical treatment. “Journalism must not carry a death sentence,” said the CPJ.

Journalists around the world are putting their safety at risk to cover the coronavirus story. Supporting the health and welfare of journalists is a foundation of press freedom, especially in pushing back against the impunity of those governments and groups that attack journalists rhetorically or physically. That is in addition to the killings, imprisonments, and abductions of journalists, which have reached historic highs in the last two years, according to the ACOS Alliance. These attacks represent a fundamental threat not only to individual news professionals, but to the practice of independent journalism itself.

Democracy and press freedom are both in decline. This is a parallel phenomenon as civil liberties have deteriorated in many countries along with a similar decline in press freedom. Global press freedom fell to its lowest level in 2019, according to the annual Freedom in the World report from Freedom House. Democratically elected leaders, in Hungary and Poland, for example, have silenced critical voices and given support to media outlets offering supportive coverage. Elsewhere, Covid-19 has provided leaders in Turkey and India with a justification for the harassment and arrest of journalists. History has shown, though, that press freedom can make a comeback from long periods of repression. The fundamental human desire for access to fact-based information can never be erased.